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Making Sense of the Many Top MLB Prospects That Debuted in 2020

There was no reason to expect a pandemic-shortened season to produce so many call-ups. Yet a great number of highly touted prospects took the field this year. What gives?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sportswriters seek out extremes. Unprecedented performances, unexpected slumps, and historic hot streaks are always fodder for discussion, but “average” is rarely worth writing about. In MLB’s pandemic-shortened and experimental-rules-reshaped 60-game season, though, almost nothing is normal, at least when it comes to totals and counting stats. When almost everything is abnormal, the normal is noteworthy. And so, with a few games to go before the beginning of the 16-team playoffs, let’s take time to delight in one precious staple of the six-month season that the two-plus-month season hasn’t stolen away: top prospects making their major league debuts.

Several players who appeared on top-prospect lists this spring and subsequently debuted have played central roles in the pennant race. Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal have helped propel the White Sox into contention for the AL Central crown. Sixto Sánchez has established himself as the ace of the unlikely October-bound Marlins, helping Miami hold its own against its NL East competitors and their own rookie reinforcements, Ian Anderson, Alec Bohm, and Andrés Giménez. Ryan Mountcastle, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Brady Singer, and other precocious prospects have been bright spots for fans of losing clubs. And while plenty of top prospects have struggled in their first exposures to the big leagues—Jo Adell, Joey Bart, Nate Pearson, Luis Patiño, Evan White, Dylan Carlson, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and more—even those slow starters have shown flashes of future stardom and brightened the long-term outlooks for their respective teams. The 2020 season has offered less of almost everything: fewer games, fewer highlights, fewer fans in the stands. Fortunately, it hasn’t provided fewer first looks at highly rated rookies.

The graph below shows the number of top-100-ranked prospects who’ve made their MLB debuts in each season since 1990, based on Baseball America’s preseason rankings as well as Baseball Prospectus’s preseason rankings beginning in 2007.

Barring any last-minute top-prospect appearances, this season’s count will end up sitting just below the established baseline, and well above the tallies in many previous full-length seasons. Over the past 30 years, 28 top-100 prospects per season, on average, have graduated to the majors. (The max was 39 in 1995, when the backlog built up by the 1994 strike was released.) This year’s mark stands at 27 (according to Baseball Prospectus) or 26 (as judged by Baseball America). Very little about baseball is the same in 2020 as it was last year, but BP’s total of 27 top prospects promoted is exactly the same as 2019’s, and higher than 2017’s (24) or 2018’s (17).

Those totals tell us how many top prospects made the majors, but they don’t tell us where on the preseason lists those prospects appeared. The next graph displays the average rank of the top prospects promoted each season.

The average rank of this year’s debutants from both lists is 45.4, almost indistinguishable from the annual average since 1990 of 45.3.

Lastly, we can quantify this crop of top prospects by blending quality and quantity. If we assign points to each prospect promoted to the majors—such that the no. 1 prospect is worth 100 points, the no. 2 prospect is worth 99 points, the no. 3 prospect is worth 98 points, and so on—then the sum gives us a sense both of how many ranked rookies got the call and of how highly ranked they were. By this measure, too, 2020 comes in right around the norm.

As BP’s Jeff Wiser and MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo observed in August, top-prospect promotions came fast and furious after Opening Day, cramming many more call-ups into the first month of the season than would typically occur. Of course, this Opening Day arrived a lot later than usual. But once the games got going, the accelerated pace of promotions quickly became one of the compressed season’s silver linings. During the season’s first few weeks, a new blue-chip player seemed to turn up every day.

In a normal season, prospects are promoted as openings and needs arise in the majors, as they prove their worth in the minors, and as rosters expand to 40 players in September. This year, there was less MLB playing time to go around, there were no minor league games played, and September roster expansion was nixed even prior to the pandemic. How is it, then, that 2020 featured roughly the same number of top-prospect debuts as the average season played under pre-pandemic conditions?

A few factors might explain this welcome but somewhat surprising result. First, there’s a cyclical element to top-prospect promotions, as I noted in 2015; after a few years with low to moderate promotion rates, this spring’s top-prospect lists may have been better stocked than usual with players on the verge of the majors. Second, the cancellation of the minor league season and the Arizona Fall League left nowhere but the big leagues for prospects to face high-level competition in truly competitive games. Although many top prospects were assigned to teams’ alternate sites and participated in practices and intrasquad scrimmages, some teams may have decided that the risk of suffering stagnating skills in a year without games was greater than the risk of suffering setbacks after being rushed to the majors without much minor league seasoning. Third, this season’s unique circumstances conspired against the service-time manipulation that traditionally keeps top prospects down. Fourth, COVID-related opt-outs and absences and an elevated pitcher injury rate created extra opportunities.

Fifth, rosters swelled to 30 players on Opening Day, decreased to 28 in August, and remained that size for the rest of the season. So while September rosters were reduced relative to past Septembers, they were larger than ever in July and August. And sixth, the small-sample season allowed teams to dream. When clubs are locked in tight races, they have more incentive to take a chance on prospects who might put them over the top. And thanks to the 60-game schedule, every team started the season with some sort of chance. Even teams like the Tigers and Orioles, which would have had almost no hope in a 162-game season, remained in the running long enough to put pressure on them to call in the cavalry.

To this point, I’ve been dwelling on a way in which this season has been blissfully normal. But one can only contemplate baseball (or anything) in 2020 for so long before encountering something strange and unsettling. Although top-prospect promotions haven’t slowed, there have been fewer rank-and-file first-timers. Through Wednesday’s games, 205 players had made their major league debuts in 2020. That would have been a normal number as recently as 10 years ago, but it’s a small number now, in the era of rampant reliever usage and roster reshuffling. Over the past five seasons, the annual average has been 256. The current total of 205 would be the fewest since 203 players debuted in 2010 (although 2012’s total of 206 is still within reach).

Expanded rosters, shorter leashes for starting pitchers, double-headers, and opt-outs and injured list stints propped up this tally to an extent. (The COVID-decimated Marlins alone have used 61 players, including 18 brand-new big leaguers.) But given recent trends, roughly 50 players who would have made the majors in a full-length season likely lost that chance this year. Many of them may still make it in future seasons. But some of those players’ windows will have closed for good; they’ll never fulfill their shared dream of making the majors. Even those who did debut this year didn’t do it under ideal circumstances: Their friends and families had to watch from afar instead of appearing in person. But they were the lucky ones. Most minor leaguers didn’t get to play any games, let alone major league ones. And many minor leaguers lost their livelihoods entirely.

Because it was impossible to play minor league games this season, many of the players who made major league debuts did so without the traditionally requisite résumés. On September 18, 21-year-old left-hander Garrett Crochet made his debut for the White Sox. Crochet was (and is) a top prospect, but he didn’t count toward 2020’s count of top-prospect promotions, because when the preseason prospect lists were published, he was still a student at the University of Tennessee. Crochet was drafted in June with the 11th overall pick and skipped straight to the majors, becoming the first player to bypass the minors since Mike Leake in 2010 (and Leake debuted the year after he was drafted).

Crochet, who’s hardly been touched in his first four appearances, has the stuff to succeed on the fast track; he’s already thrown more pitches 101 mph or faster this year than anyone except Josh Staumont, who started the season in the majors and has thrown almost seven times as many pitches in total. But for players who are less talented or less immediately major league ready, leapfrogging levels isn’t easy. And a lot of 2020 rookies are tackling that tall order.

BP’s Craig Goldstein noted in August that the players who’d debuted up to that point had amassed less upper-level experience than usual, and that trend has grown even more pronounced as the season has proceeded. The graph below shows the percentage of players in each season since 2008 who made their major league debuts without first appearing in Triple-A, in addition to the percentage of players who made their debuts without first appearing in Triple-A or Double-A. (Players who made the majors directly from foreign leagues like the KBO and NPB who are excluded from the sample.)

In recent years, only 10 to 15 percent of players who made the majors skipped Triple-A. This year, nearly half have (48 percent). Normally, only a little more than 1 percent of players who make the majors do so without appearing in Double-A, Triple-A, or both. This year, 11 percent have, including Crochet and the most recent arrival, Rockies righty Tommy Doyle. Granted, many of these players were at their teams’ alternate sites prior to their promotions, so it’s not as if they were idle prior to their promotions. But there’s still a significant difference between Triple-A and a taxi squad.

For what it’s worth, most players have hit the ground running after clearing this unusually high hurdle. The graph below shows the performance of first-year players in every season since 1990, as measured by BP’s Deserved Runs Created Plus for hitters and Deserved Run Average Minus for pitchers, weighted by playing time. (Both are set on a scale where 100 is average, but higher is better for DRC+ and worse for DRA-.) First-year pitchers have performed about as well in 2020 as they did during the past two seasons, and while first-year hitters have declined slightly relative to recent years, they aren’t out of line with historical standards.

There’s no great way to tell what the long-term ramifications of mass minor-league-level skipping—or, for that matter, forcing most minor leaguers to sit out the season—might be. Many minor leaguers are in the same not-so-seaworthy boat, which may mute the effects: It’s probably less harmful for a young player to lose much-needed reps if his competitors are missing that playing time too. But it’s possible that the lack of experience could stunt this cohort of players in a way that will become clear when one day we compare their development to that of the players who preceded and followed them.

What we can say with certainty is that for baseball’s best young talents, at least, 2020 hasn’t been as big a bottleneck as one might have feared. Despite the obstacles in many prospects’ paths, the major league life cycle continued. More than 25 of the sport’s most promising and most anticipated players made their first major league memories in a season that will always stand out on stat lines and in video footage as the year when baseball was weird. Their presence made it feel a little less weird. And by giving us a glimpse of a better baseball future, they helped carry us closer to a time when plain old normal numbers could go back to being boring.

Thanks to Lucas Apostoleris of Baseball Prospectus for research assistance.